Miscellaneous Rumbles

Where do guitars come from?

26

Cort: nice guys....... NOT!!! Employees bitch about terrible working conditions like forced overtime, and unsafe work areas, and Cort fires all of the Korean employees and moves all production to China and Indonesia...

https://unitelive.org/cort-...

27

Meanwhile, just up the street from the factory...

28

is what? Can anyone read that green-bordered sign way down at the end of the street to the right?

30

It's where Ibanezesezes come from. They get their very own annex.

31

Meanwhile, back at the main campus, they're loading out.

32

Is this a neck-sanding jig?

33

Where the bodies hang, somewhere in the finishing process.

34

Could be your Squier Strat neck.

35

Buffy the Orangepeel Slayer

38

"Much better to be making Musical Instruments out of any of the finer woods than sheet plywood for concrete Skyscraper pour frames..."

I only went into Indo once, mainly Telecom/Power BackUp stuff. My Aussie peers made all the arrangements, except I did make my own with the U.S. Consulate.

Making guitars was discussed a long while over beers one night. It would have been around 1995, a couple years before this Cort operation from Korea started. I can't think of any other earlier operation with Foreign Investment.

Part of the impetus was what I stated above, kind of an early "Green/Save the Forest" campaign for Aid, using the Brazil Rain Forest situation as the less desirable alternative.

The Squire by Fender Bullet Butterscotch Tele I acquired earlier this year is a stunning product at its price point.

39

Dan refers to a long-running labor dispute between Yeong-ho Park, President of Cor-Tek (and son of the founder in 2nd-generation business) and Korean employees of a facility he closed there about 13 years ago.

In a nutshell - so far as I can determine - workers complained about unsafe working conditions (specifically, insufficient filtration and ventilation for sanding and painting operations), forced overtime without additional pay, harassment and belittling by managers, sexual harassment, and unfair pay differences between workers.

As the workers' (and unions', and unions' awareness groups) have it, employees complained and asked for redress - upon which Park shut the factory down without notice, padlocked the gates (effectively firing everyone), and moved production to Indonesia and China.

Ex-employees and their supporters claim the move was made to prevent having to upgrade the facility or make things right, and to vindictively punish the complainers. Says they put up with conditions for years because the company continually cried that it was on the verge of failure (while pocketing millions in profit every year).

Park claims the move was made for business reasons, to improve profitability and insure the health of the company.

In any case, some of the Korean ex-employees seemed unable to move on and let it go, and were were still actively protesting several years after the fact. In 2010 and 2011- despite their presumed impoverishment at the hands of Cor-Tek - they sent representatives to California to demonstrate outside NAMM (which I covered at the time in my reporting from the event) and to meet directly to make their case with Fender and other Cort customers. (Hoping these customers would pressure Park to satisfy their grievances or threaten to pull their business.)

Korean courts have apparently also been unable to establish the actual facts, as cases have been thrown out, retried, appealed, and apparently tried in alternative venues. After pursuing all the documentation I could find, it seems the employees first prevailed, Cor-Tek appealed, and the Supreme Court finally found in favor of Cor-Tek.

I don't find any legal action between 2014 and the present.

Wiki says this:

Since 1997 controversy has surrounded Korean factories of Cort and Cor-Tek due to its alleged mistreatment of factory workers. Grievances include the closing of its Daejon factory with no advance warning on April 9, 2007, mass redundancies of all staff from its Incheon plant on April 12, 2007, and the firing and mistreatment of union officials and members.

On July 12, 2007 a Cort worker set himself on fire in protest, and on October 15, 2008 workers conducted a 30-day hunger strike and sit-in occupation on a 40-meter electricity tower.

This controversy went through various legal stages in Korea from 2007 through 2012.[9] Ultimately, Cort received favorable decisions from the Supreme Court in Korea that ended any further liability on Cort's part to the terminated employees. The court recognized that the closure of the plant in 2008 and subsequent layoff were justified.

According to this source, from Korea, the Korean Supreme Court put it to bed in 2014: http://english.hani.co.kr/a....

And this is the most comprehensive (and comprehensible) account of the entire ordeal I've been able to find: http://english.hani.co.kr/a...

(Please have the stamina to read these sources before commenting on Cor-Tek's Korean labor record.)

For the TL;DR, here's a summary of the agreement reached in 2019:

The company agreed to express its regret for the layoff; to reinstate, on an honorary basis, the three individuals who never stopped asking for their jobs back (Lee In-geun, Kim Gyeong-bong, and Lim Jae-chun); and to pay a settlement to 25 members of the Cort labor union, including Lee, Kim, and Lim. Furthermore, all parties concerned agreed to withdraw all civil, criminal, and administrative lawsuits that they’ve filed against each other. Labor and management are planning to hold a ceremony...on the morning of Apr. 23, where the agreement will be signed by Park Young-ho, president of Cort Guitars, and by Kim Ho-gyu, chair of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union.

While the unitelive.com article is colorful, sensationalist, and malignantly self-congratulatory - suggesting that all it took was a letter from the right union and the longest labor dispute in Korean history was resolved - the only "redress" it mentions is an apology to the workers. (Which, I would think, hardly counts as a meaningful resolution.) It manages to completely miss the financial settlement documented in the Hani articles.

Boiled down further, it appears that while 25 employees of Cort's former Korean plant were/are members of the union and received some compensation, there were only three who pursued the matter for 12 years. These three apparently hoped to get Young to re-open the Korean facility and give them their jobs back. One lit himself on fire in the process (but did not die); another seems to have threatened to jump off an electrical tower. Am I the only one who wonders why three people out of a whole factory would go to such extremes, for 12 years, to get jobs back they claim were dangerous and under-compensated? There has to be a back-story.

Bedazzled and impressed over decades as I am by stereotyped and culturally resonant impressions of both Evil Corporations and Corrupt Unions, I find myself unable to pass judgment in this matter. I don't know where the truth lay.

To condemn (and presumably boycott) Cor-Tek now - 13 years after the contested events, 6 years after Korea's highest court weighed in, and 18 months after the largely face-saving agreement was reached - is to imply certainty that unsafe working conditions and unfair labor treatment are official Cort policy, and must also govern the company's behavior at the Chinese and Indonesian facilities. I don't know that we can draw that conclusion.

On the one hand, we like our high-value, high-quality, low-cost guitars. On the other, we abhor (and make frequent colorful reference to) Asian "sweatshops," "slave labor," and shockingly low wages in places that have little to no regulation (while we whine about our own...) and are free to abuse their people.

But I don't know how well informed we are about actual conditions in actual plants - or that we always keep in mind the complicated truth that capital and industry look for the lowest-cost competent labor they can find, while relatively impoverished but highly motivated populations are always willing to work for less than our "living wage" if doing so represents a perceived improvement in their conditions and prospects.

Americans (particularly newly arrived immigrants and marginalized regional demographics) proved this through our industrial growth 100-150 years ago, and we've seen the lowest-cost labor nexus move through Japan and then Korea, now centering (for the guitar industry) in China, with the frontiers being Indonesia and Vietnam. The process will continue for as long as civilization with world trade holds up, eventually raising standards of living and local wages in one place to the point that another place can be more "competitive."

I don't know how we can conclude that it's not these countries' - and these workers' - right to work harder than we will, sometimes under worse conditions, in order to raise their own (and their countries') material standards of living. It's what America did. (Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether that has ultimately been good for us, "spiritually," either individually or as a culture - or whether it's good for them and the world.)

As I say, I don't feel I can pass judgment on Cort as it's currently operated. FMIC, Ibanez, PRS, Schecter and so many others continue to do business with the company. All of these have company standards for the treatment of labor forces, and make regular visits to their offshore suppliers to coordinate production. If everyone involved in all those companies are evil, greedy, unprincipled and cynical bastards who would abuse and sell out helpless populations for a buck, I can only conclude that's the prevailing state of human nature - and I'm probably complicit in it.

But I've put email feelers out to a couple of companies who contract with Cort for guitars about these human rights issues...and have not heard back. Still, from the fact that several brands who use Cort not only acknowledge but pretty much brag about the connection, I can't think it's a horror show. (Because why risk the blowback ifwhen the truth comes out?)

So for the moment, I'm willing to give these companies the benefit of my doubt - that Cor-Tek is not (or is no longer) systematically poisoning, overworking, and otherwise abusing its people.

And one thing I do know: you can pay someone to do a job. You can even pay someone a lot to do a job. But there isn't enough money in the world to pay anyone to do a good job. They have to be able to do that job, and the core and source of that ability is that they have to want to do a good job. In my book, doing a good job is ennobling in and of itself.

From the evidence, I conclude that Cort's workers in Indonesia do a good job.

40

So let's meet some of them, huh?

A pensive worker.

41

White collar skepticism?

42

Note that in Indonesia, "white collar" and "blue collar" are still literal signifiers.

45

I really hope she worked on one of my guitars.

46

This could - literally - be the Squier Tele I bought last summer. Like Twangmeister, I'm seriously impressed and completely satisfied with my butterscotch.

47

These Cortiers don't look miserable.

Among the media I found when researching PT Cort Indonesia are several youtube videos, linked below, of an event held between the main factory buildings in 2019. A band (perhaps named for an artist) called Monata, then New Monata (as near as I can decipher it) is popular in Indonesia, and plays a regional pop variant.

It looks to me like Cort brought the band in for a concert for its employees.

48

And who are these people who build our guitars?

According to wiki, Javanese are the majority in Surabay; Madurese are a significant minority. There are also Sundanese, Batak, Banjar, Balinese, and Bugis - along with "significant" populations of Chinese, Indians, Middle Eastern, Arabs, Armenians, and Jews.

80% are Sunni Muslim, 18% Christian - leaving 2% Buddhist & Hindu (which was once the dominant religion).

Whether from unexamined cultural imperialism ("guitars are good for everyone, and rock & roll is universal"), oblivious globalism ("better we trade with each other than fight"), or a naive enthusiasm for cultural diversity, I've found I like to think of these people building guitars, and being laced into the tapestry of world trade. I hope it's as good for them as my Squires - and especially my Gretsch Streamliners - are to me.


I went down this rabbit-hole when I realized Strandberg guitars - by most accounts the best headless, multi-scale, extended-range guitars on the market - aren't built in fonder Ola Strandberg's Sweden, but at PT Cort in Indonesia.

I sense most of us have considered Indonesia near the bottom of the guitar-source pecking order. Despite being consistently impressed by the overall quality, fit-finish, and performance of PT Cort-made guitars, I've always (consciously or unconsciously) appended "for the money" to my evaluations of the guitars.

But aside from my reservations about the pickups and hardware in my Streamliners (which are spec'ed by FMIC, not Cort), I realize "for the money" is a needless qualifier. The guitars are impeccably well made in every way I've been able to inspect.

And because I'm seriously shopping a Strandberg - which are premium-priced - I wanted to come to terms with spending very "un-Indonesian" money (as I thought of it) on a guitar made there.

I wanted to know more about the place, the people, the company. All too often we dump the people who make our guitars into national buckets: the Koreans, the Chinese, the Indonesians. But do we say "the Americans"? Or do we talk about Gibson (and specific Gibson plants), Corona, Kalamazoo, Westerly, Brooklyn, Booneville, etc?

I wanted to localize and particularize the people who make the guitars. I wanted to see their faces and get some sense for the process. Thanks to Google Maps and Google Earth (from which all these images came), I at least feel like I've been able to do that. It's not "the Indonesians" anymore: it's individuals who come (mostly by motorbike) to a modest facility in a small industrial park south of a rapidly-growing city on the ocean, a couple hour's drive from Bali, to build guitars.

They build a lot of them. I don't know how many people work at PT Cort. Cor-Tek claims 3,000 employees worldwide; in the videos and the Monata pic, it looks like a sizable bunch work there. Cort claims a million guitars a year across three facilities. If we do the crudest math possible and guess each facility produces a third of that total, we get 333,000 (morless) guitars a year. Estimating 300 days of work a year, that's something over 1,000 guitars a day.

They really are productive. And, from all evidence, they're pretty durn good.

Ola Strandberg says he's centralized production of his guitars at PT Cort because of the consistent quality of their work, and because Cort was willing to devote an assembly line and dedicate personnel to his product alone (and there's a picture on Strandberg's site of a door at the factory so signed). He makes regular trips to train and coordinate.

The process must work. I can't find a review or forum opinion that Strandberg guitars are anything but wonderful through-and-through, which suggests to me that Cort's people are building the guitars entirely to Ola's unique and exacting specifications, reliably bringing his unique and innovative vision of a totally ergonomic guitar to life.

Strandbergs past have been made in various locations, including Sweden, Ohio (license to build revoked), Washburn in Illinois (facility closed), Dyna Gakki in Japan (but not for export out of the country), World Musical Instruments in Korea, and Yako in China. By most accounts, the specs have continued to be refined through the years so that the most recent guitars - aside from place of manufacture - most clearly reflect Ola's current engineering and are "the best we've ever made." Versions of various models float around the used market, coming from all those sources, and it's not impossible I'll end up with one of those. (Naturally, the Swedish-made custom shoppers command prices higher than I'll pay.)

But if it's a new PT Cort model, I'm confident the quality will be there, and I guess I won't begrudge the cost.

Ola says it's not where the guitars are made, it's how they're made.

49

Ola says it's not where the guitars are made, it's how they're made.

I agree with this statement Tim, as I remember when I first got a look at how my Japanese built DuoJet was put together, frankly, it was better built then some of my USA built guitars. And most of my USA stuff is custom shop level. And my 6118T SGR Annie, and my 6120T '55VS have cemented in my mind that Japanese builders get the job done. And I'm old enough to remember when MIJ meant shoddily built!

But as for supporting CORT in anyway, I'll leave that to others.

50

Nice documentation, automated widgets in mass quantity can be cool but for a worker it's just another factory job soon to be replaced by machines. It reminds me of the guy working in Detroit who's job was putting bolts on/in a door, that was his job. Can't help but take the fun out of opening the car door to go to work.

Which reminds me of what a friend said the other day, he never speeds going to work, afraid he's going to die in an accident going TO work...


Register Sign in to join the conversation